In 1981, when I was 8, my grandmother bought me a present that I didn’t want – a Barbie Dream House. As I remember it, the Dream House was enormous and took up quality playing space in my room. It came with pink and green striped furniture, a pink TV that stood on a pink stand, and an unforgettable pink toilet. (Here I must disclose that my grandmother’s real house also had a pink toilet, along with a pink bathtub and three pink sinks!)
I didn’t have a strong dislike for the color pink, I just had a different kind of dream house in mind. I wanted a mushroom house like Smurfette’s. In fact, I wanted to live in a mushroom village like the Smurfs. The Smurfs was my favorite cartoon and since I was very short, grew up as the only female member of my household (unless you count my cat, Snow), and tended to feel quite blue at times, you can see why I identified with Smurfette more than I did with Malibu Barbie.
As much as I loved the idea of living in a mushroom, however, the idea of eating one repulsed me. And it was at just this time that he popularity of portabella mushrooms was on the rise. Over the course of a few years, the pork ribs on Texas grills in my surroundings would slide over a few inches to make room for giant mushrooms. Adults considered these mushrooms to be delicacies, which was as much a mystery to me as was the fact that they had no interest in gumball machines or in playing Sardines with me for three hours straight.
As years passed and I became a vegetarian, it seemed like everywhere I went someone was offering me a portabella mushroom as a meat substitute. I didn’t want one any more than I wanted meat. Then, while in high school in the early 90s, I learned there were mushrooms in a different class altogether – ones called shrooms that, if you ate them, would make you forget you were stuck in Houston, across the street from a bayou, and being forced by the school guidance counselor to sit in an empty classroom until you could come up with a good reason for skipping typing class. (These were somewhat tempting mushrooms, but alas, being a good girl, I never tried them and the best reason I could come up with for skipping class was the truth, I wanted to go home and watch “Days of Our Lives.”)
Now as an adult – a diabetic adult – I’ve come to appreciate mushrooms not for their real estate potential, taste, texture, aura of sophistication or hallucinogenic effects. I like mushrooms because they’re low carb, low calorie, nutritious, and there are many diabetes-friendly ways to eat them.
While often thought of as a vegetable and prepared like one, mushrooms are actually fungi, a special type of living organism that has no roots, leaves, flowers or seeds. According to WH Foods, button mushrooms have grown wild since prehistoric times, and were consumed by the early hunter-gatherers. Mushrooms like maitake, oyster, porcini, portabello, and shiitake are good sources of protein, B vitamins, minerals, and they contain a powerful antioxidant called L-ergothioneine.
Research shows mushrooms contain components that may fight cancer, enhance immunity, and they also have anti-inflammatory effects. Dried mushrooms are as good as fresh, according to health advisor, Dr. Andrew Weil. But Dr. Weil warns not to be duped into using raw mushrooms in dishes since they contain natural toxins that only heat destroys. “Mushrooms should be really well cooked,” Weil says. “In the West, people are in the habit of frying mushrooms or preparing them in a lot of cream or butter. The Asian methods of preparing them–in soups, grilled, or barbecued–are much superior. I think they’re much healthier that way.”
If you’re shopping for something more than the basic button mushrooms this week, here are some quick-facts to guide you:
Oyster mushrooms are said to help lower cholesterol. They have a frilly, fluted cap and vary in color from white to reddish brown. Choose ones that are uniform in color and eat them within three days of purchase.
Shiitake mushrooms have antiviral and immune-enhancing properties. The meaty brown caps can grow to several inches across. Buy ones with plump, dry caps and store them in a paper bag.
Enoki mushrooms might protect against cancer. These long slender white mushrooms with small caps are good in soups. Select ones with firm, white shiny caps and store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator.
Jessica Apple is co-founder and editor-in-chief of ASweetLife. She writes the blog The Natural Diabetic.